NRL Prelim Finals – Penalties, Damn Penalties & Equality

As the occasional readers of this blog will know, the Dr regards the NRL season as two separate and distinct competitions – home and away, and finals. It really doesn’t make sense to view it otherwise given it isn’t an ‘EPL’ model without the knockout feature, and winning the Minor Premiership has very little meaning (even to the winners who don’t even bank a cheque worth noting). It’s merely another brick in the road to ultimate glory.

If you doubted the difference between the two competitions, just take a look at how the Knights have performed in the finals so far. Having been utterly awful leading into the finals, they have transformed themselves into a unit formidable enough to be the favourite amongst many commentators to beat the actual Minor Premiers this Saturday.

Finals, particularly ‘last chance saloon’ matches (and the Knights have surprised me by winning two in a row), are a different hurdle altogether, mixing mental toughness and the ability to perform under intense pressure with passion, desire and yes, talent.

So you can see why I have the views I do.

Going a step further, it would seem that the game changes yet again for the final two weeks of the finals.

The change is subtle, but it’s hard to escape the idea that the referees are ‘directed’ to keep penalties to a minimum and stay ‘out’ of the game. I like this approach, preferring to allow both teams in Preliminary Finals and Grand Finals the equal opportunity to overcome their opponents with a minimum of ‘official’ interference, and the spectacle is far superior as well.

The stats from the last five years incorporating 2008 through 2012 highlight this.

The 10 Preliminary Finals during this period average an even 10 penalties per game which, if replicated this weekend, compares favourably to the more than 13 penalties blown during an average club match in 2013.

Even more interesting is the ‘home bias’ reflected in penalty counts, home teams having won 7/10. The average penalty count is 5.3/4.7 to the home team.

For Grand Finals it’s lower again, averaging just 7.8.

Which, if any, team will benefit from this approach to awarding fewer penalties?

Based on the flow of penalties in 2013, the answer seems pretty obvious. The Roosters will gain a significant boost.

Having been on the wrong end of 11-5 and 12-5 penalty counts in the last two weeks (and winning), they would be more than satisfied only giving away the average gap of the last 10 Preliminary Finals – two.

Or even the widest gap of those finals – three.

Having won only 22% of penalty counts this year, the Roosters would likely thrive on not only a smaller gap between teams (or even winning a penalty count), but also a low number of penalties in aggregate. They also haven’t had a positive ‘net’ penalty count season since 2004. I’m sure they’d appreciate some low numbers this week, as opposed to 17 of them and only ‘earning’ five of them.

The Knights on the other hand have won about 54% of penalty counts, which is far more advantageous, and a hallmark of Wayne Bennett-coached sides.

Manly will also benefit from low penalty counts given they have been in the referee’s crosshairs this year. They have won just 38.5% of penalty counts in 2013, while their opponents, the Rabbitohs, at 48%, are closer to the Knights’ result.

So, there are a couple of cross currents working for and against them as far as penalties go, but both the Chooks and Manly are going to be awfully hard to beat if they can achieve penalty equality.

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